Ellen Douglas Essay - Ellen Douglas Long Fiction Analysis

Josephine Ayres Haxton

Ellen Douglas Long Fiction Analysis

Because of the autobiographical nature of Ellen Douglas’s novels, it is noteworthy that her family’s heritage is deeply rooted in the history of Mississippi. She comes from what could be called the landed aristocracy. Some of her ancestors held land and slaves, and in subsequent generations entered professions that gave them significant community and social standing. During the economic depression in the South that began around the time of the American Civil War, they were, however, impoverished, and still of the genteel class. The genteel class, and their conflicts and concerns, predominate in Douglas’s novels. Through their eyes and voices she describes the South’s legacy of racial conflict as well as the changes wrought within the region’s families and communities by economic forces, and, some say, encroaching New South values.

Douglas’s novels also have complex and strong women characters for whom changing gender roles bring struggle. These women marry, raise children, live as responsible members of extended families and in small-town communities, and try to age with dignity. Clearly, the theme of family resonates in her work, but like so many important southern writers of her generation, Douglas is always exploring the burden of the past, especially as it is learned—and remembered—through story, as well as the individual’s responsibility to that past. Her fiction raises the question, Given the circumstances of personal and public history, what was, indeed what is, the right thing to do?

Though Douglas continued to write about the complexity of life in small-town Mississippi, and though her “voice” remained consistent, she also experimented with point of view. For example, A Family’s Affairs employs an omniscient narrator, but the perspective of AnnA&Mdash;daughter, granddaughter, and sister—predominates. While Apostles of Light, a later novel, also uses an omniscient narrator, Douglas creates here the increasingly confused interior world of the elderly Martha as she endures the stresses of aging. A Lifetime Burning is the fictional diary of a sixty-two-year-old college professor whose husband has an affair. She then has to deal with her life with him after the affair. The diary is sometimes addressed to her children and even includes a diary within her own, that of her husband’s grandmother. Then, in Can’t Quit You, Baby, Douglas invents a third-person female narrator who sometimes intrudes into the narrative with her own comments. Here, too, this omniscient narrator takes the reader into the confused and grief-deadened mind of Cornelia, the novel’s protagonist.

Douglas also is known for the realism of her descriptions of small-town life in the Deep South—its gardens, small businesses, conversations—the rhythms of both everyday life and special, sacred occasions. Her detailed descriptions of the natural world, however, make nature the most compelling aspect of these small towns and their surrounds. Many of her characters are deeply in tune with the land—its trees, shrubs, and flowers; insects, birds, and small creatures, both domestic and wild; the way scents and sounds change according to the time of day and the season. The loss of this connection with nature is a sign of spiritual atrophy in Douglas’s fictional worlds.

Finally, though her novels could never be described as polemical, Douglas does not shy from the social issues that plagued the modern South. Race relations are a major topic of her fiction, as might be expected of a southern writer, but she also takes on the struggles of the aging, drug abuse, the complexities of human sexuality—including homosexuality—the environment, and the consequences of unchecked materialism, especially as it plays against the genteel, dignified poverty and making-do of earlier generations.

A Family’s Affairs

A Family’s Affairs tells the story of the matriarch and widow Kate Anderson and her family as they struggle and endure in Homochitto, Mississippi. The family lives in genteel poverty at the start of the story, but the realities of World War I and the economic depression that follows affect the family even further. As a single mother, Kate raises four daughters—Charlotte, Sara D., Katherine (Sis), and AnnA&Mdash;and a son, Will. The novel, told primarily through daughter Anna’s point of view, spans much of Kate’s adult life, beginning with the marriage of her oldest daughter, Charlotte, to Ralph McPherson and ending with Kate’s decline and death. Anna, at this point, is married with children of her own,...

(The entire section is 1894 words.)